NPR's new headquarters
You see no clue, but it’ll be ‘the last great analog facility’
Warned that there are some scattered holes in the floor, the sightseers from public radio stations this month stepped gingerly around the gutted sixth floor of the building that will become NPR's home by the beginning of 1994. [Plans for the move were laid in 1991.]
The network invited them to tour the building at Mt. Vernon Square, on the north edge of downtown Washington, during the Public Radio Conference.
They were checking out a real-estate investment that NPR Vice President Sid Brown calculates will save $12 million (in today's dollars) over the next 30 years, compared to leasing office space and will give a bonus of completely owning the building at the end of that period.
NPR also will get about 142,000 wheelchair-accessible square feet of space (not counting the 4,000 square feet that will continue to be occupied by a bank and 5,000 sacrificed to create several high-ceilinged performance studios), compared with about 88,000 square feet in the current space.
The move will relieve some of the crowding for NPR staffers. News reporters, for example, will get 64 square feet apiece, up from a cramped average of 36 square feet. Some mid-level staffers will lose a little space, said Occupancy Coordinator Maury Schlesinger, and major honchos will come out even.
The new building is being designed to hold the present 400 staffers, and 80 more can be squeezed in, he said. If NPR needs still more space in the future, it will own several small lots on the east end of the block (only one containing a small building), where the building could be expanded. (Petroleum-contaminated soil from the former gas station there has been removed, Schlesinger said.)
Floor by floor
Visitors saw only the bare concrete floors and mid-renovation conduits and air ducts of a pie-shaped office building, but tour guides including Schlesinger and architect Burt Hill of Kosar, Rittelmann Associates described how the lobby would be enlarged with a welcoming staircase and part of the fourth-floor ceiling would be sawed out to make room for two-story performance studios.
Architect's plans showed how the space would be used:
Ground floor: The lobby, with a staircase leading to meeting rooms on the first floor.
First floor: The NPR Board room and consolidated conference rooms for most departments, and offices.
Second floor: News Division offices, including the staffs of Morning Edition and All Things Considered, with two studios, Record Central where technicians will be able to dub tapes at three workstations, and 10 of the approximately 20 editing booths in the building.
Third floor: Offices for the news desks, plus a similar suite of studios, including one designed for Talk of the Nation's telephone needs, and seven edit booths. Bringing TOTN offices and studios together will save a lot of elevator commuting that is required in the present building. The second and third floor studios will be similar enough that they can serve as back-ups for each other if necessary.
Fourth floor: More offices, plus two studios for broadcasting performances (the high ceilings improve their acoustics) and unfinished space for a third such studio. The largest studio — 2,200 square feet, or big enough for a chamber orchestra or large dramatic production — will be equipped with "near-state-of-the-art" digital multitrack recording equipment thanks to various grants. So that technicians can watch their banks of display screens straight ahead, all control rooms will have their studio windows off to the side.
Fifth floor: Administrative offices.
Sixth floor: Executive offices, plus technical control rooms, including the System Technical Center capable of bringing in 250 audio channels and sending out 150 over the satellite network. Because the floor was built for a bank's central computer facility, it has a raised floor for cables to run underneath.
Seventh floor: Cafe Nipper, a deli for staffers, occupies this partial floor. Outside the eating space, NPR will have five satellite dishes, carefully screened from microwave interference (to satisfy the engineers) and from pedestrians' view (to satisfy the city government).
Planners checked out at least 20 building sites to choose one where dishes could be installed without interference problems, said Director of Operations and Engineering Jim McEachern at a PRC session May 8. Three of the dishes will be pointable at various satellites and all will "see" the full arc of satellites aloft, according to engineering officials.
From the windows of the seventh floor at 635 Massachusetts Ave., the sighteers this month could look south across Chinatown toward the Capitol or north above the low houses and church spires on the edge of downtown.
"Disciplined entry into digital"
Though many audio facilities are converting to digital recording and storage, NPR has chosen to make "a disciplined entry into the digital era," according to Vice President of Audio Engineering Don Lockett. That means the network will haul its 150-plus reel-to-reel analog tape machines to the new building.
When NPR moves in, said Senior Project Engineer Jan Andrews at a PRC session for engineers, the building will be "one of the last great analog facilities."
"It may seem short-sighted, but we feel we are a few years too early to do an all-digital facility, at least cost-effectively," Andrews observed.
NPR eventually will throw out its razor blades, go tapeless, and store its audio on huge computer disc drives or memories, Lockett said at the PRC. Edit booths will have room for digital workstations to be installed later, and the building will be wired for a terminal to be installed on every producer's desk.
For now, the cost of the new equipment, plus all the digital/analog converters, would be "a little bit much for us to consider with our budget," Lockett said.
The network is looking at tapeless "desktop audio" systems for the news department, he said. The building is being planned to accommodate a D-Cart digital audio workstation system developed by Australian Broadcasting Corp., but the network has decided not to purchase it yet, Lockett said. D-Cart systems are used by ABC Radio in New York and CBC Radio in Toronto, and have been ordered by BBC, according to the Australian network.
The tapeless system would let editors work on a recording from a press conference even while it was going on, and maintain original sound quality in the various edits, he said.
NPR begins the big move to 635 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., this Thursday, Feb. 17  — a week after originally planned.
Weekend Edition and All Things Considered will be broadcast from Voice of America offices over the weekend of the 19th and 20th, and ATC and Morning Edition will air from the new building on Monday, the 21st.
Talk of the Nation will originate from WHYY in Philadelphia for two weeks following the move.
"The fewer shows you have to do out of the new facilities," explains NPR spokesperson Mary Morgan, "the better off you are." If the move goes right, she says, listeners will learn about the move only by hearing a news piece about it on Saturday's Weekend Edition.
Moving more than 400 employees and all of NPR's equipment is an "enormous undertaking," according to Morgan. "When you think of the numbers of people, and the amount of stuff, and the bare logistics. … We have four elevators — there's only way for things to get out of here." NPR's four large satellite dishes already have been moved to their new rooftop.
The move is being handled by Management Alternatives.
With the move, NPR's main phone number will change to (202) 414-2000, and most staffers will keep the same final four digits of their phone numbers; to reach them, change the first three digits from 822 to 414. Others will get entirely new numbers.
Web page posted Feb. 12, 2001
Copyright 2001 by Current LLC